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Analysis

Minkah Fitzpatrick vs. A 2020 1st Round Pick

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With the 18th selection in the 2020 draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select…

Okay not really.

When the Steelers did the unthinkable and traded their 1st round pick in this year’s draft for Minkah Fitzpatrick last September they made a simple calculation. They badly needed a safety after getting torched through the air in their first two games and there was a young and talented free safety available with years of control.

They pulled the trigger and Minkah Fitzpatrick was a Steeler. Going the other way was a 1st and 5th round pick in 2020 and a 6th round pick in 2021. The Steelers received a 4th round pick in 2020 and a 7th round selection in 2021.

Since then, both Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have publicly stated that they consider Minkah their 1st round round pick in 2020.

Was it worth it? Will we ever be able to really make that assessment?

Let’s dive deeper.

The Steelers were at least somewhat confident that their 1st round pick wouldn’t be too high. Maybe a risky calculation given that Roethlisberger had already gone down with an injury at the time they made their move. If they were staring down a 0-16, 1-15 season, they wouldn’t have made the move. But they knew they had lots of skill to work with and didn’t think making the playoffs was out of the question. And they were (mostly) right. The Steelers went 8-8, missed the playoffs by a game and ended up only having to surrender the 18th pick.

In Minkah Fitzpatrick the Steelers got a supremely talented player, one that they had coveted coming out Alabama, but didn’t have the draft capital to pick in 2018. They got as close to a sure thing as you can get, a player with a proven track record in the NFL. Even better, they got a player that turned out to be an All-Pro. The number of All-Pro rookies in 2019? None. In fact, only three were even Pro Bowl selections, although that’s a designation that means less and less each year.

Is it possible for rookies to become All-Pros in their first year? Sure.

Of the players selected with Minkah in 2018, six have made an All-Pro team, with Quentin Nelson, Derwin James, Michael Dickson and Darius Leonard making it their rookie year. That’s four players selected in the entire draft that made an All-Pro team their rookie year. One of which is a punter and one was a 2nd round selection.

In 2017 just two rookies were name as 1st team All-Pros, Arizona safety Budda Baker and Detroit return specialist Jamal Agnew.

Will anyone in this year’s draft be more impactful than Minkah Fitzpatrick? Using Pro Football Reference’s approximate value numbers, the answer is almost assuredly not. Especially if Fitzpatrick can come close to repeating his 2019 performance. Last season Minkah scored a 19 AV (14 AV with the Steelers in 14 games), the highest rated rookie in 2019 was Kyler Murray at 14. The highest rated rookie on the defensive side was Joey Bosa at 11 AV.

In 2018, 2nd round pick Darius Leonard lead all rookies with an 18 AV. Saquon Barkley and Quentin Nelson each scored a 14. Safety Derwin James had 11 AV.

Heading back to 2017, Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara had 15 AV respectively. The highest rated defensive player was Budda Baker at 9 AV.

In the last 20 years, the only rookie to score higher than Fitzpatrick’s 19 was fifth overall pick Patrick Peterson, who scored a 20 in 2011. Additionally, over that same span, the only defensive 1st round picks to score higher than Fitzpatrick’s Steelers only AV of 14 was 49’ers linebacker Patrick Willis, who had a 17 in 2007 and Detroit 2nd overall pick Ndamukong Suh, who had a 15 in 2010. Second round picks Darious Leonard and Steelers linebacker Kendrell Bell also scored higher than Fitzpatrick’s Steelers only AV of 14, but not higher than his full season approximate value of 19.

Will Fitzpatrick be able to repeat his 2018 performance? That remains to be seen. But there’s a very good chance that no matter what, he’ll be better than any rookie selected in this year’s NFL Draft. And that’s what the Steelers were looking for. A player to help them now, not in the future.

With Fitzpatrick, they may have gotten the best of both worlds.

Analysis

Analysis: Steelers Must Develop Their Own Brand of Vertical Offense

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The Steelers offensive identity has been built on efficiency. With Ben Roethlisberger coming off of elbow surgery, they wanted the veteran quarterback to reinvent himself. The good news is that Roethlisberger has done that and then some. Roethlisberger gets the ball out faster than any other quarterback in the NFL. With an emphasis on the quick passing game, the Steelers have been throwing it to their bevy of playmakers to a large degree of success for most of the season.

However, over the past two games, the offense has suddenly gone stagnant. Scoring just 17 points on Monday against the Washington Football Team, the Steelers offense is trending in the wrong direction at the worst time. Without a running game in sight, the passing game has been the Steelers’ crutch. Still, it is something that has become predictable. Washington edge defender Chase Young said that “Baltimore exposed some things” and that the defense could pick up on the Steelers tendencies as a whole.

It is that predictability that is the root cause of the issues the Steelers are having offensively. To the running game and short passing game, everything comes back to their inability to be unpredictable and fool the defense. Perhaps the most important of these predictable tendencies is the Steelers’ affinity to run short horizontal routes only. Bubble screens, drags, quick slants and ins, and smoke routes are essentially the Steelers’ route tree at this point. Every now and then there is a five yard curl over the middle of the field.

That is something that Randy Fichtner hangs his hat on. Ever since becoming the offensive coordinator, he has made it point for the Steelers to get their receivers in open space, create havoc, and let the playmakers do the work. In the modern NFL, it has a lot of great things to it. The fruits of it were shown in games against Tennessee, Cleveland, and Philadelphia earlier this season. The issue has become that Fichtner goes horizontal too much in games. Out of any bunch set, there is at most five route combinations the Steelers are running. Knowing they will try quick passes, teams are just dropping eight defenders into coverage and clamping down on it.

So, what is the natural adjustment to that? Well, it is to take the fight to them and attack them vertically. Now, the type of vertical attack they have is somewhat limited. It is essentially relegated to heavy and pray bombs. The Steelers also refuse to attack the middle of the field. They have only 11 passing attempts for 15 or more yards in the middle of the field this season.

Attacking the entirety of the field is one of the easy fixes for the Steelers. The middle of the field is ripe for the taking given what defenses are throwing at the Steelers. It is a lot of single-high coverage, so if they can isolate someone like Chase Claypool or JuJu Smith-Schuster on that single-high safety, it could be a big play. The Steelers have the weapons to really go after it in the middle of the field.

The caveat coming with a more oriented traditional vertical passing game would be the inaccuracy of Roethlisberger himself. There is a reason that the Steelers are hesitant to throw 40 yard bombs. It is because Roethlisberger’s accuracy is all over the place. Every now and then he finds paydirt, but it is a deep ball that far from what it was prior to his elbow surgery. The good news is that while Roethlisberger may struggle with those extremely deep passes, he can still put a lot of velocity on the ball and push it.

With an arm like Roethlisberger’s now, the Steelers should be trying a different vertical attack. They must go back to what they once did under Tood Haley, and even more so earlier this season. While they will have to toss the vertical heave every now and then, the Steelers can get away with working on the vertical plane. That means a lot of out, curl, comeback, dig, and seam routes. Those throws outside the numbers with guys like Claypool and Diontae Johnson could really be the adjustment this team needs.

Opening up the offense for JuJu Smith-Schuster to run up the seam a bit more and make some combat catches would be a welcome sight. Even running a skinny post or corner route with Eric Ebron seems ideal. Roethlisberger does not have the accuracy on those heave ball types anymore. He does have the accuracy in the 20-25 yard area to still push it to all areas of the field. It is that key distinction that the Steelers must take advantage of to work open this offense. The Steelers have the personnel to do it, the question is just will they do it.

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Analysis

With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start

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The Steelers have charged out to a 2-0 start to the season thanks to the stellar defense and the return of star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which has elevated an already talented group of receivers that also added Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron to the mix this offseason.

At least, that’s how the narrative has gone so far. And with good reason. The Steelers do have a stellar defense, and Roethlisberger has been a spark, with five touchdowns in two games and a completion percentage (68.5) and passer rating (107.1) that would both be career highs.

But the Steelers have also done a surprisingly strong job of running the football. Through two weeks, there have only been 10 running backs to rush for over 100 yards, and the Steelers have two, with Benny Snell clearing the century mark against the New York Giants and James Conner returning from injury to do so against the Denver Broncos.

They’re the only team with a 100-yard rusher in each of their first two games and have increased their percentage of run plays from 33% in 2018 to 42% this season. Roethlisberger said part of that is that the Steelers have been operating with a lead in the second half and looking to run some clock by running the ball.

“Yeah, I think it’s just the way the games have played out,” Roethlisberger said. “We don’t go into any game saying, OK, here’s our percentage of run/pass. We go into the game trying to win it. I’ve just been happy at the end of games, we’ve been able to utilize the four-minute offense both games. I think that’s something that we take pride in. Because when we say we have to run the ball, it doesn’t mean we have to run it more. We have to run it more effectively. And running it in the four-minute offense is effective running.”

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin also highlighted the success of the four-minute offense as the Steelers ran out the clock with the football in both victories.

“We have been able to close games out via the run,” he said. “We have been able to possess the ball in four-minute offense. We’ve had a lead in the latter part of the game and have been able to close the game out and maintain possession of the ball primarily via the run. I like that aspect of it. We are still working and growing in terms of being able to do all the things that we want to do, not only in that area of the game, but in all areas of the game. But I think it is a good start when you have your four-minute offense rolling and you are able to possess the ball via the run and preserve a lead at the end of a football game.”

Of course, there are many mouths to feed when it comes to the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger’s number of quality targets in the passing game, plus what looks like it could be a two-headed backfield between Conner and Snell is a lot of talent to go around and there’s only one football.

Roethlisberger said striking a balance is easy, though, at least when the team is 2-0.

“You look at the win loss column,” he said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s getting the ball. It doesn’t matter how many times we’re running or throwing it, it doesn’t matter who’s getting their stats, it’s just a matter of if the team is getting that one stat that’s most important. And that’s a win.”

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Analysis

Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way

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The Steelers will be throwing their rookie guard into the fire on Sunday. With injuries to both David DeCastro and Stefen Wisniewski, the Steelers are being forced to throw fourth-round rookie Kevin Dotson into the starting lineup. While his college tape looks good, and Steelers Now concluded he could have starting upside, this is early for him to be starting. Dotson missed a good portion of training camp with a knee injury. Not only that but with such limited time, is he really ready to play this early? The few reps he got versus the Giants may be able to tell the story.

There were two key plays that showed Dotson might just be ready right out of the gate here, even despite the “angst” that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have described at starting Dotson this week.

The first play was this rep against Dexter Lawrence. Now, Lawrence is an explosive athlete. Converting speed-to-power is something he does really well. With powerful hands to jolt pass protectors as well, he can be a real problem, especially for a young guy like Dotson. However, while Dotson initially gets hit slightly back, he does a great job of engaging his core strength and anchoring down. It is obvious how strong Dotson is on the football field, but it is not just in his arms. It is his legs and core that allows him great body control to stand his ground. Other than his dependable anchor on this play, Dotson has fantastic hand placement. His hands are placed inside of Lawrence’s shoulder pads and he is able to control the point of attack here as a result. It was all through winning the leverage of the rep where Dotson was able to get those hands under Lawerence’s pads. A true people-mover it is no surprise to see Dotson play with excellent leverage.

This is a fantastic pull by Dotson on this play to spring Benny Snell. He shows off some hip stiffness, but overall moves pretty well to reach the end here and seal it off. Dotson is the very definition of mauler that plays with violence and power. The end gets shocked by Dotson’s pull and can not get free of his grasps in time to make a play on Snell. This is textbook teach tape for pulls, and while it is not flashy, it is good stuff from Dotson.

Back in training camp after he had just come back and was facing some first team competition, Dotson made sure to let it known he was up to the task.

“I feel like I can make an impact no matter what happens,” Dotson said.

Now with a flurry of injuries, it will up to Dotson to handle Jurrell Casey against the Broncos as the Steelers try to improve to 2-0. If the limited tape says anything, Dotson might just be up to that task.

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